Get­ting bet­ter all the time

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

That day in the sum­mer of 1967, Richard Gold­stein walked into the New York Times of­fices in mid­town Man­hat­tan wear­ing a dark blue cape. He was 22, a hip­pie and a free­lancer. And he was about to de­liver a scathing re­view of the most im­por­tant al­bum of the year, per­haps the most im­por­tant al­bum in rock his­tory.

Gold­stein had been thrilled when Sy Peck, a vet­eran Times ed­i­tor who wore a tie, handed him the band’s new record, “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Grow­ing up in the gritty Bronx, Gold­stein iden­ti­fied with the lads from work­ing-class Liver­pool. Those red-hot early Bea­tles sides were a nat­u­ral link to the driv­ing rock of the 1950s. And the Fab Four were true artists. Ap­proach­ing “Sgt. Pep­per,” they had branched out into the baroque pop of “Eleanor Rigby” and psy­che­delic tape loops of “To­mor­row Never Knows.” They had quit tour­ing so they could con­cen­trate on the stu­dio. “Sgt. Pep­per” would be their mas­ter­piece.

Gold­stein rushed home to the Up­per West Side apart­ment he shared with his wife, Ju­dith. He slipped the vinyl onto his turntable. He took his cus­tom­ary lis­ten­ing po­si­tion, head back on the rug with a floor speaker aimed on each ear. He turned up the vol­ume as the chug­ging guitar of the al­bum’s opener kicked in. That’s when the trou­ble started.

Gold­stein hated “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“Busy, hip and clut­tered,” he called the record in a re­view that ran in the Times on June 18, 1967.

He blasted the Bea­tles for “a sur­pris­ing shod­di­ness in com­po­si­tion” and de­clared the al­bum, ul­ti­mately, “fraud­u­lent.”

“Sgt. Pep­per,” of course, was an im­me­di­ate hit, No. 1 on the Bill­board charts for months. It also was crit­i­cally ac­claimed, even­tu­ally top­ping Rolling Stone mag­a­zine’s list of the 500 great­est al­bums of all time. This month, the Bea­tles’ eighth stu­dio al­bum will get the an­niver­sary treat­ment with a six-disc box set that in­cludes dozens of demos and al­ter­na­tive mixes of songs now con­sid­ered part of the pop canon, in­clud­ing “With a Lit­tle Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Di­a­monds” and the group’s great­est pocket sym­phony, “A Day in the Life.”

But at least one per­son still re­mem­bers Gold­stein’s slash­ing re­view. Paul McCartney.

A few months ago, McCartney, in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post, was asked about deal­ing with crit­i­cism dur­ing his post-Bea­tles ca­reer. In an­swer­ing, he ref­er­enced Gold­stein’s take.

“What I do with that, as dis­tress­ing as it is, I try to ra­tio­nal­ize what’s go­ing on,” McCartney said of be­ing panned in the 1980s. “Well, wait a minute, the mu­sic critic of the New York Times hated ‘Sgt. Pep­per.’ And we had to sit through that.”

Deeply driven, tor­tured

You may not have heard of Richard Gold­stein, but at one time, he was al­most fa­mous. He in­ter­viewed a para­noid Brian Wil­son in the Beach Boys leader’s smoke­filled liv­ing room, sadly watched Jim Mor­ri­son slur through an aborted record­ing ses­sion and shared an awk­ward kiss with Janis Jo­plin.

He was the orig­i­nal rock critic as mis­fit. Ac­tu­ally, he was the orig­i­nal rock critic.

Back in 1966, when Gold­stein be­gan writ­ing for the Vil­lage Voice, there was no Rolling Stone, no Spin, no full-time mu­sic critic at the Times.

So it made per­fect sense for Peck to as­sign “Sgt. Pep­per” to this 22-year-old free­lancer.

“Richard Gold­stein in­vented rock crit­i­cism,” says Robert Christ­gau, the le­gendary Vil­lage Voice writer who be­came friendly with him in those days. “He was the first rock critic. I mean, it turns out Paul Wil­liams was pub­lish­ing his zine [Craw­daddy] and there were other things hap­pen­ing, but with­out ques­tion, he was the most vis­i­ble.”

He may have looked con­fi­dent enough to let his freak flag fly, but Gold­stein was also driven by a deep sense that he didn’t quite fit in.

As an over­weight kid grow­ing up in the projects, he would walk down the streets of the Bronx with a tran­sis­tor to his ear, blast­ing Lit­tle Richard. Later, he had his cape to cod­ify his out­sider sta­tus. He was a hip­pie in Straightville, a kid from the projects in up­town Man­hat­tan. In pho­tos from that time, he looks happy-go-lucky. He was any­thing but.

“One of the most deeply tor­tured peo­ple I knew,” re­mem­bers Ju­dith Hib­bard-Mi­paas, who mar­ried Gold­stein in 1967 and, de­spite their even­tual split, re­mains friends with him. “He has a very Eastern Euro­pean, Slavic face, and it’s very round, and very, very dark eyes. Plus, he was short and peo­ple would yell at him. And this is even in Man­hat­tan. On the one hand, you were forced to flaunt this long hair and hip­pie clothes and satin lace. But on the other hand, he was be­ing chal­lenged: ‘You don’t look like a guy. You don’t look ma­cho.’ ”

Gold­stein agrees. “You know, I just saw ‘The Hairy Ape’ by Eu­gene O’Neill, and the line that keeps re­cur­ring in this lumpen­pro­le­tariat pro­tag­o­nist in the play is ‘I don’t be­long,’ ” he says. “When he goes to Fifth Av­enue, he keeps say­ing, ‘I don’t be­long here.’ That’s what I felt like in Man­hat­tan.”

There was one place where, even if he still didn’t feel at ease, Gold­stein could at least rub el­bows with other angst-rid­den ec­centrics. The mu­sic world was filled with brash, tal­ented, in­se­cure, confused and doomed fig­ures. He felt du­ty­bound to de­fine what they did as art. His ap­proach was both egal­i­tar­ian and ego­ma­ni­a­cal. He be­lieved his re­views were speak­ing di­rectly to his mu­si­cal he­roes, of­fer­ing them di­rec­tion, but he also wanted to be viewed as less an au­thor­ity, more a fan.

“Amer­ica’s sin­gle great­est con­tri­bu­tion to the world has been her Pop (mu­sic, cin­ema, paint­ing, even mer­chan­dis­ing),” he wrote in the for­ward to his 1969 an­thol­ogy, “The Po­etry of Rock.” “It is with this sense of Amer­ica, as clown­guru to the world, that I of­fer the premise of rock po­etry. I am aware that cer­tain as­pects of pop walk a del­i­cate line be­tween camp and rev­e­la­tion. But I set out to edit this book as a par­tic­i­pant, not an au­thor­ity. So, I wel­come your de­ri­sion — and your heads.”

By “Sgt. Pep­per,” things were chang­ing, and no more so than in the Bea­tles camp.

The days of the mis­chievous mop tops slap­stick­ing their way through the streets were over. Scream­ing girls weren’t just a drag — they kept the Bea­tles from hear­ing their in­stru­ments at gigs. So on Aug. 29, 1966, the Bea­tles played their fi­nal con­cert, at Can­dle­stick Park in San Fran­cisco. In Novem­ber, they headed back into the stu­dio.

“John came into the con­trol room and said, ‘You know, we’re never go­ing to per­form live again,’ ” re­calls Ge­off Em­er­ick, the famed en­gi­neer who worked with pro­ducer Ge­orge Martin on “Sgt. Pep­per.” “‘We’re go­ing to cre­ate some­thing that’s never been heard be­fore, a new kind of record with new sounds.’ ”

The record they de­liv­ered did that and more, from the tam­boura open­ing on “Lucy in the Sky With Di­a­monds” and Ge­orge Har­ri­son’s Hin­dus­tani-in­spired “Within You With­out You” to the largely im­pro­vised, or­ches­tral crescendo in “A Day in the Life.” It was a con­cept record, with the songs pre­sented as the work of the mys­te­ri­ous, satin-uni­formed Lonely Hearts Club Band. When “Pep­per” came out, Time mag­a­zine de­clared it “a his­toric de­par­ture in the progress of mu­sic — any mu­sic,” while the London Times called the re­lease “a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the his­tory of Western civ­i­liza­tion.”

The crit­ics also took on Gold­stein. The Vil­lage Voice, his own pa­per, ran a re­tort from another critic. Pete John­son, the rock critic at the Los An­ge­les Times, re­mem­bers also be­ing an­noyed.

“No ques­tion the guy could write, but I thought it was badtem­pered grand­stand­ing,” he says to­day.

Em­er­ick re­cently read the re­view again. He has a the­ory as to what led Gold­stein to at­tack “Pep­per.”

“There was noth­ing to com­pare it to,” Em­er­ick says. “I know that was the feel­ing when we’d fin­ished it. It was a piece of art, and he was chal­lenged and he wanted to win.”

A busted speaker

This may be as a good a time as any to of­fer Richard Gold­stein’s con­fes­sion. It isn’t any­thing he has tried to hide, and, in fact, he men­tioned it briefly in his 2015 mem­oir, “Another Lit­tle Piece of My Heart.” But the rev­e­la­tion may be star­tling to Bea­tles fans, who have de­voted their lives to in­ter­pret­ing ev­ery lyric, record­ing flour­ish and pho­to­graph pre­sented by their band.

The stereo Gold­stein used for his re­view was bro­ken.

Re­peat. The guy who slammed “Sgt. Pep­per” in the New York Times had a busted speaker. Christ­gau has never heard that. “That’s f---ed up,” he says. “You don’t re­view a record on a stereo that isn’t work­ing, cer­tainly not a record of that con­se­quence.”

Giles Martin, son of pro­ducer Ge­orge and the man over­see­ing the new “Pep­per” reis­sue, first ques­tions whether Gold­stein was mak­ing that up as an ex­cuse for his re­view. The orig­i­nal stereo mix of “Pep­per” was quite lop­sided.

“You’d know if your stereo was bro­ken,” Martin says. “‘Lovely Rita’ has bass and vo­cals on one side, all the band’s on the left-hand speaker. On ‘A Lit­tle Help From My Friends,” you’d have no bass. And I think Ringo’s in the cen­ter but the band’s on one side, the back­ing vo­cals.”

Fair enough. This is where the critic speaks up. He’s not de­fen­sive. He doesn’t raise his voice. He just doesn’t agree.

“So, yeah, I f---ed up, but these peo­ple who will now say, ‘Oh, you know why that guy gave a bad re­view in the New York Times? He didn’t have a left speaker.’ Okay. That’s their prob­lem, though. Be­cause they’re wrong.”

He is 72, with a thin beard and easy laugh, and lives with his hus­band, Tony Ward, in a 14thfloor apart­ment in Green­wich Vil­lage. He stopped writ­ing about mu­sic in the late ’60s, but he never left jour­nal­ism. For decades, Gold­stein cov­ered the arts and gen­der iden­tity is­sues at the Vil­lage Voice, where he even­tu­ally served as ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor. These days, he teaches “Pep­per” in a course on the ’60s at his alma mater, Hunter Col­lege. Now com­fort­able in his own skin, Gold­stein can ex­plain why he feels he re­jected “Pep­per” all those years ago. The bro­ken stereo, he says, had noth­ing to do with it.

The re­jec­tion boils down to two rea­sons. He didn’t un­der­stand “Pep­per” mu­si­cally when it was re­leased, and he found his tur­moil over his sex­u­al­ity — he wouldn’t come out un­til the 1970s — didn’t al­low him to em­brace the at­ti­tude of the record, which he says de­fied the ag­gres­sive, mas­cu­line ap­proach of so much rock.

“I re­mem­ber be­ing sort of hor­ri­fied by the al­bum,” he says, “be­ing de­ter­mined with that sort of nar­cis­sis­tic frenzy that young men can have. To, you know, shake them up and force them to ac­tu­ally make rock-and-roll again. Like they would be lis­ten­ing. That the Times was all pow­er­ful and there­fore they would say oh we’ve made a mis­take, we’re go­ing to go back to singing ‘Long Tall Sally’ or ‘now I’ll never dance with another.’ I wasn’t re­ally in­ter­ested in the prophetic as­pect of ‘Sgt. Pep­per.’ I was in­ter­ested in the vi­o­la­tion of the rules and I didn’t like it, and that’s what I look back on with a lot of re­flec­tion.”

Another lis­ten

On a re­cent week­day, Gold­stein agreed to re­visit his re­view in the most di­rect terms.

He would lis­ten to the record with the speak­ers ad­justed to pro­vide the full mix, and also with the left chan­nel turned off to try to re-cre­ate what he ex­pe­ri­enced on his bro­ken sys­tem.

Gold­stein doesn’t have a turntable any­more, so The Post had a Crosley turntable sent to his apart­ment. We pro­vided the 2009 reis­sue of “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on vinyl.

The lis­ten­ing ses­sion be­gan with “Get­ting Bet­ter” be­cause it’s one of the most rock-driven on “Sgt. Pep­per” and also a song ig­nored in Gold­stein’s re­view. With the left speaker dis­con­nected, the jagged guitar can be heard but McCartney’s bass — which drives the song — is gone.

“True, it’s dif­fer­ent,” Gold­stein says. “This is not a song I would have paid a lot of at­ten­tion to, and maybe this is why.”

Other mo­ments lead to con­fu­sion. “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with one speaker out, com­pletely loses McCartney’s lead vo­cal and be­comes an in­stru­men­tal. But Gold­stein clearly knew the vo­cal when he wrote his re­view, which makes him won­der whether the speaker on his sys­tem wasn’t com­pletely blown, just dam­aged.

He lis­tens to “Within You With­out You.” Back then, he dis­missed Har­ri­son’s lyrics as “dis­mal and dull.” To­day, he con­sid­ers the song one of his fa­vorites on “Sgt. Pep­per.”

When it’s over, Gold­stein agrees that the bro­ken stereo changed his lis­ten­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But he’s not sorry. He says that even the best sys­tem wouldn’t have changed his re­view back in 1967.

Gold­stein laughs and re­lates another take from the ’60s:

“I was the first critic to re­view the Doors’ first al­bum. And I gave it a rave re­view. I said great al­bum. One bad cut on this al­bum — ‘Light My Fire.’ What can I say? If you’re not em­bar­rassed by your youth, what good are you?”


Hear that? The big­gest al­bum by the big­gest band ever. Now the critic who fa­mously panned ‘Sgt. Pep­per’ takes another lis­ten (with a stereo that works).


Richard Gold­stein, left, wears his 1960s dark blue cape at his home in Man­hat­tan last month. In 1967, he sav­aged “Sgt. Pep­per” in a New York Times re­view that, 50 years later, Paul McCartney hasn’t for­got­ten.


“Busy, hip and clut­tered” was Richard Gold­stein’s take on “Sgt. Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in his June 18, 1967, re­view of the Bea­tles al­bum in the New York Times, at left. “I re­mem­ber be­ing sort of hor­ri­fied by the al­bum,” says Gold­stein, above at his home in Man­hat­tan. He said he felt de­ter­mined to “shake them up and force them to ac­tu­ally make rock and roll again.” BE­LOW: Gold­stein, at right, at the Yale Club in 1967, along­side film in­dus­try fig­ures, from left, Dar­ryl F. Zanuck, Jack Valenti and David Brown.



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